Andrea/Cara here, It’s the height of summer here, and as I stare out my window at the small swatch of greensward and flowering shrubbery in my backyard, I can’t help but fantasize about the Regency-era ritual of the country house party. Imagine rolling through the gates of a grand estate, with acre upon acre of gardens, woodlands and waterways to explore by day. And a grand manor house in which to enjoy sumptuous meals and evening entertainments amid impressive furnishings and fabulous art . . .
Which got me to thinking about which of the stately homes in England would have been the most fun to visit. I didn’t really have to ponder the question long—now, I know many people would choose Blenheim or Chatsworth, but for me, an invitation to Strawberry Hill would have had me packing my ballgowns in a heartbeat. I mean, how could any romance author resist the chance to hobnob with Horace Walpole, creator of The Castle of Otranto—considered the book that created the genre of the gothic novel! As for his self-designed residence and gardens—he called his enclave Strawberry Hill—well, read on!
Walpole, son of British prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, was a connoisseur of the arts and letters, as well as an avid collector of antiquarian objects and a politician in his own right. In 1747, he found a piece of land called “Chopped Straw Hill” overlooking the Thames just southwest of London in Twickenham, a fashionable spot for the haute monde, and set out to build his dream home. Now, Walpole had his own very individual sense of aesthetics—some might call them eccentric—so, in contrast to the prevailing classic style of order and symmetry, he was inspired by the architecture of the Gothic cathedrals and abbeys to create his own vision of medieval castle, with towers, turrets and unexpected twists and turns. He called his estate Strawberry Hill, a name he found more poetic than the original.
His attention to detail extended to designing the ornaments and furnishing for the rooms—everything from stained glass to the fireplaces to the doors and window shapes. Collaborating with artists friends, he created a truly unique look—sometimes using paper mache instead of stone to fabricate his elaborate designs! (You can take a virtual tour of the house and gardens of Strawberry Hill here, created by the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale.) Walpole called his creation “a plaything house” and wanted a tour through it to be a theatrical experience. He loved juxtaposing dark, gloomy spaces, and then suddenly having a narrow passage open up into a bright, colorful room. As his design was an original, rather than a renovation of an actual gothic building, he’s credited with creating the first Gothic Revival design, which became very popular in Victorian times.
Given the eccentricities of his collection, it’s no wonder that the castle’s ambiance inspired him to write his famous book—it’s said he awoke from a dream and thought he saw a great armored fist lurking in the shadows . . a vision that quickly became part of the clanging chains and dark dungeon trope we know as the Gothic Novel. (Walpole also possessed the first private printing press in England, which he used to print his book.)
Strawberry Hill quickly became an tourist destination. From May through October, Walpole allowed one group of four visitors a day, and drew up strict rules that had to be followed for entry. He came to dislike the public intrusion, and would often retreat to one of the out cottages during a tour. However, he loved entertaining, and the guest list often included royalty, high-ranking aristocrats and foreign dignitaries.
The gardens showed the same sense of imagination. Rather than formal layouts featuring parterres, terraces and classical decorations, he favored a wild, natural look. Nor did he have a taste for dramatic grottos or other such contrivances. One might have expected the landscape to favor the same gothic mood as the castle, but according to Walpole, “Gothic is merely architecture, and as one has a satisfaction in imprinting the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals on one's house, so one's garden, on the contrary, is to be nothing but riant, and the gaiety of nature."
So what about you—at what stately English country manor would you like to have been on the guest list for a country house party. And if an English country house party hobnobbing with the beau monde is not on your dance card, do you have any special summer visits planned to fun places? I won't be straying too far from home, and need some vicarious traveling—so please share!